Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Aesthetic Connection

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

From Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

I have said reading the color (the medium of visual art) takes time and patience.  If you have continued reading this far, you have the patience and you have made the time.
What do you need to do to understand the meaning of a work of art, an aesthetic object?

Did I surprise you with that last question? 

Why, you may have asked yourself, did she call a work of art an aesthetic object?  I did, because an artist records the meaning of an aesthetic experience via a medium of expression (visual art, music, dance, theatre, etc.).  The medium is the message.  In other words, we will understand the “why” if we focus on the aesthetic qualities inherent in the medium (color is the medium of visual art—color carries the meanings).  We call this the expressive aspect.  You already know color, light, line, space, the subject, and the traditions all work together to make a work of art.  Now I will show you what role expression plays in this process.

First, a story:

One fall day, I went for my usual run.  I use the trail that wraps around the Hockessin Athletic Club (HAC) on Limestone Road in Wilmington, Delaware.  The morning’s weather report told me to expect a record-breaking day of 90-degree temperature and high humidity, so I got there by 8:30 a.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day.

As I tied my shoes, I said to myself, “OK, let’s get this over with.”

In that “positive” spirit, I started to run. 
At first, the remarkably cool air surprised me given what I expected.  As I rounded the first curve and ran onto a small wooden bridge, I noticed the sound of my footsteps changed from a thump thump—thump thump—thump thump beat on the black asphalt to a higher key thwack thwack—thwack thwack—thwack thwack on the slats of the bridge.  I noticed the sun felt warm on my back when it was behind me, and then warm on my face when it was in front of me.  The warmth felt good.

Did I say black asphalt?  I started looking at it: in the shade of the woods, the black asphalt turned out to be dark blue, purple, cerulean, and even alizarin red.  It had small rises and recessions, and these became jigsaw-like puzzle pieces, curvilinear rather than angular in shape.  As I emerged into the sunlight, the “black” asphalt glowed golden.  It snaked through the wooded areas and then circled a large, open, recessed bowl-like area, usually used for children’s soccer games. It was under construction—divided into two half-moons, one of a dark brown, smooth top soil and, the other, of cream-colored, dry, burned out grass.  It reminded me of the black and white cookies I enjoyed as a child. Iced in halves with vanilla and chocolate, the base consisted of cake shortbread laced with a hint of lemon.  In Pakula’s Bakery in the Bronx, 63 years ago on my way to school, I spent 25 cents for this cookie. At this moment, I again tasted the sweetness of the first lick of smooth, hard “frosting” on its top.

This “memory recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth said, returned with the taste and aroma attached.

At this point, I noticed something else.  The steady beat of my shoes was varied by my breathing: the thump thump—thump thump repeated about six times, and then I exhaled.  So now I had some variety:  thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—thump thump—haaaah.  While not the caliber of Mongo Santamaria’s intricate drumming rhythms or Savion Glover’s tap dancing rhythms, it did provide me much needed variety from the steady beat of my footsteps.

With the underpinning of these rhythmic beats, and the repetition of the snaking trail through the woods and open spaces, the passing landscape soon offered relevant connections.  The shrubbery lining the trail consisted of rounded, bushy volumes of muted greens, tans, and ochre varied by straight branches, some bright red, others light tan in the sun.  These receded into the deeper space of the wooded areas.  One set of bushes sported a profusion of small, daisy-like, lavender flowers, which riveted me because of their color against so much subdued, grayed, and muted browns.  Some of the bushes sent plumes of grayed, cone shaped flowers drooping downward.  The curved branches set against the straight ones, the rounded small volumes lining the trail and then receding into the deeper space of the woods, the muted colors and shapes, all caught my attention because I knew Pissarro’s and Renoir’s paintings. 

The beat of my footsteps provided a rhythmic continuity to the surrounding peacefulness and quiet.  However, when the trail approached Limestone Road, the jarring sounds of car engines and horns honking interrupted my experience and created a “hole,” a note out of keeping.  I felt annoyed by the distraction.

My run usually takes 30 minutes and, in that time, I run the trail three times, roughly doing a 10-minute mile. This time, however, because of my reverie, I had no idea what lap I was doing, whether I had run the trail two times or three.  I checked how I felt:  I was not tired, achy, or hot.  I also had no idea how much time had elapsed, because I did not wear a watch.  I told myself, “Keep going.”  And I ran the trail one more time.

When I came inside to shower and dress, it was 9:15 a.m.  I had started at 8:30 a.m. This meant I had run four miles in four laps in forty minutes, and I felt fine.

I share this experience with you because it has all the ingredients of an aesthetic experience.  My perceptions are just that: perceptions.  I enjoyed them, not because they were useful in any way, or would bring me anything in return, but just because they were.  They were completely absorbing, so I had little sense of time passing or how many laps I had completed.  I remembered things that pleased me: the black and white cookies, the paintings of Pissarro and Renoir.  I realized that my experience was one of connections and peacefulness. The snaking trail held in and set off curvilinear and angular spatial harmonies in relatively deep space.  The perception had unity—a beginning, middle, and an end.  With the exception of the noisy traffic, all the parts fit.

Violette de Mazia, in the essay, “Aesthetic Quality,” describes her experience of a sunset (6-7; 9-12). I tried to do something similar here.  I did not go out that morning intending to do this.  It happened to me.  My trying to share it with you helped me make sense of it.  As I ran on this trail, I discovered visual details of aesthetic interest, I had an adventure in perception, and my hope is that when you read my description, you can share my experience.

On that day, when I arrived home, I “shared” the experience with my husband.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “I had a great run this morning.”

Him: “That’s nice.”

That conversation did not communicate an experience.  My subsequent journal entry, which I just shared with you, came closer. However, one more step must occur if we are to use an experience like this as the subject for a work of art. That step is the transformation of the experience into a medium of expression.

That will be the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slow Scrutiny in an Age of Sight Bites

Think of sound bites, those short, simple sentences that sum up complicated issues.  We hear them on the news. Politicians, commentators, advertisers, and athletes speak in them. In this age of Twitter, Facebook, My Space, and text messages we, too, write them.

We want information short, quick, and easy.  Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post, clocked the amount of time visitors to a Giacometti exhibit at Museum of Modern Art in New York City spent looking at the pictures. In “Art ought to be in the eye of every beholder,” he recorded: (1) Average time spent reading the education wall text: 50 seconds; (2) Average time spent looking at a work of art: four seconds; (3) Maximum time spent looking at a work of art: eight seconds.

Sight bites: we look at a picture for seconds, if we look at it at all, and we move on.

The process I am describing takes much much longer.  Slow scrutiny means we study the picture, we search it for clues, and we figure out what those clues reveal. 

I learned this the hard way during my apprentice lessons with Wilmington artist Edward L. Loper, Sr.  He taught me to paint, not appreciate works of art, at least, not directly.

He tried to show me to see colors in everyday objects, and it took six months before I did.  He would point to a lemon, for instance, and ask me to tell him the color I saw.  “Yellow,” I said.  “Now, look here,” he would say, moving his finger right next to that spot, “what do you see here?”  “Yellow,” I said.  “Darker or lighter than the first one?” he asked irritably (patience was not his strongest asset).  “The same,” I said.

So it went, for those six long months, once a week, for two hours. He showed me paintings by Cezanne, Monet, and Pissarro.  He showed me the many colors they used to build each color unit.  I argued that the artists did not “see” those colors. They made them up.  He told me I knew nothing about art, about how to see, about anything.

Given this level of "encouragement," I felt frustrated and miserable. One day as I painted outside with a July landscape of grass and trees as my subject, I tried to find more than green, with Loper yelling at me as I applied every brushstroke. "Are you looking for color? That’s not green,” he shouted, “there’s color in that spot.”

The battle between this "color-crazy teacher" and his "color-blind student" finally convinced me to quit.

Driving home, while feeling very sorry for myself, I looked at the trees going by, and suddenly, as though by magic, the green foliage transformed into an oriental carpet of color.  I stopped the car and looked and looked.  Ed Loper’s badgering had educated my vision.

Years later, as an artist in residence in Delaware schools, I taught 5th graders how to paint.  I shared with them the same seeing method Ed Loper taught me.

The children I taught learned more quickly than I did.  When the weeklong session ended, one boy told me, “Before you came here, when I tried to make a picture, I slapped some paint on a canvas and hoped for a miracle.”

I had taught him a method that enabled him to see color in a way he never saw it before. 

When you master this method, you will too.

Let’s review that Hockney picture I asked you to examine:

                                                       David Hockney, Garrowby Hill, 1998

Color: bright, clear, vivid. 
Space: deep, receding space
Light: brightest light in the center (valley); medium lights in foreground and background; light band of light (sky) at top; dark band of light in right center (trees) with smaller triangle of darker light in left foreground.
Line: multiple lines—some stripes of darker brown on deep red-brown in left foreground unit—bright red lines on green in center curve; light white lines on lavender in center curve—vertical red lines (tree trunks) on right—lines dividing mid-ground into geometric and curvilinear shapes.  All repeat in a smaller pattern in the background.

You can see how the colors shapes contrast between curved and rectilinear.  You can deduce from the list above that the vertical lines contrast with the curved ones. 

If you keep looking, you will enjoy the many other varieties on the theme you are beginning to detect.  Rhythms of curvilinear and geometric units build this picture.

Did you enjoy finding the repetitions and the variety?  Rhythm intrigues us.  If you enjoyed discovering the rhythms in this picture, you now have experienced how the aesthetic works. Remember, an artist is a specialist in the aesthetic.  The work of art records the meaning of an aesthetic experience.  We simply enjoy rhythm as we detect it.  

How did you state the idea? 

Did you say something like: the subject was a landscape consisting of a descending, curving road set off by hills and trees and opening into a valley below? 

The picture idea is a dramatic (contrast produces the quality of drama) series of stripes and bands organized into curvilinear and rectilinear vivid, bright, clear color units creating a forceful push into deep space.

Notice the subject was; the picture idea is.

You may have used different words, but compare what you said to what I said.  Did you see what I saw?  Did you see more?  Less?  (I hope more). 

Do you wonder, still, what that picture idea means?  Does it still seem odd to you? 

If your answer is yes to both, do not give up.

We are not half way through these lessons.

In the next post, I will describe an aesthetic experience and review what I have said so far.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Come to Your Senses

Recently, as I taught my 7-year-old granddaughter Lily and her best friend Michele to paint, Lily’s 4-year-old brother Max built with Legos alongside us.

He worked hard and long, struggling to get the thing he built to stand firmly on the table.  Finally, he announced, “Grandma, look.  I made a dinosaur dragon.”

I saw a vertical construction consisting of two upright rectangles (legs) holding a large square central unit with pieces sticking out of it (body with wings) out of which sprang a very long rectangle (neck) topped by a tiny square unit (head).

Max beamed with delight.

He got it to balance.

Why do kids love to do things like this?  Whether with blocks, Legos, or anything else, they build complicated structures, working hard to get them to balance.  As they add units, going higher and higher, their excitement builds. 

The simple answer: they enjoy it.

The more complex answer: balance, symmetry, suspense, novelty, rhythm, and expectancy are of an aesthetic nature.

Etymologically, “aesthetic” has its root in the Greek aisthanesthai, to perceive or to attain awareness or understanding.

Violette de Mazia, in an essay titled “Aesthetic Quality,” says we feel this sense of satisfaction when we successfully balance our checkbook or solve any problem.  A physician feels it when he renders a diagnosis, even if the diagnosis reveals something negative.  We read crime novels or watch murder mysteries, no matter how violent, because a murder can be “beautifully” planned and carried out, and the suspense (who done it?) intrigues us.  We enjoy a sunset simply for the colors and patterns.  We enjoy watching a fire, not for its destructive effects, but for the drama and power of its actions.  We enjoy the color and shape of daffodils on a hillside.  But until, like the poets Wordsworth or Herrick, we try to objectify the meaning we discover in those daffodils and recast that meaning into poetry, our experience is short of theirs.  As a poet writes the poem, selects the words, experiences the effect of the words, their cadence, their pattern, their sound, his intent becomes clearer and clearer.  Just as Max with his Legos, the poet revises and adjusts all the means.  When finished, the “artist” embodies in the work of art the meanings, the feelings, the identity born from this adventure in perception. (The Barnes Foundation: Journal of the Art Department, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring 1971, p. 13).

The process I am describing in these posts allows you to take in and enjoy “through your senses” the art in art.

Let me say that another way.  With adults, I usually start my first class with a grape, not an apple.  A seedless green grape is easier for adults to handle and less cumbersome for me to bring to a large class.  I ask them to examine the grape in the same way I ask children to examine the apple:  first they look at it and list everything they see;  then I ask them to touch it with their fingers, to rub it on their arms, and to list how it feels;  I ask them to smell it;  I even ask them to put it to their ear and listen for any sound;  finally, I asked them to pop it in their mouths and examine it with their tongue, then take a small bite out of it, and listen to that bite as well as taste  it. 

They tell me what they discover, and we make a list of the attributes of a grape. 

Sensory in nature, this exercise demonstrates how our senses allow us to understand those qualities we enjoy for their own sake, not for any practical use or significance. 

Max did not build his dinosaur monster for fame or fortune; he did not have any other motive than his simple enjoyment of the process.   The children learned to appreciate an apple, or the adults a grape, for the simple pleasure of doing so.  No research required.  No experts consulted.  As Dewey argued, “we learn by doing.”  Satisfaction results directly from doing the work of perception, not for any other reason.  The result, if we think about it and find meaning in the experience, Miss de Mazia argues, produces an intellectual sensuousness. 

Since the artist specializes in the aesthetic, what better way to experience the meaning in works of art than to use our senses to do so?

Let’s work with one aesthetic quality: rhythm.  Rhythm means repetition with variety.  Think of a metronome or the ticking of a clock, both useful and necessary sounds, but repetitive.  If forced to listen to either one for an extended time, we would declare the experience boring.  Listen, on the other hand, to jazz drummer Mongo Santamaria, and the multi- layered rhythms capture your interest.  Or watch and listen to this video of José Greco and Savion Glover creating intricate, complex rhythms in a face off fusing Flamenco and Jazz tap.

In visual art, shapes, patterns, colors, and spatial units repeat with variety.  We call these motifs.  Once identified, they offer clues to the picture idea.

Look at this picture:

David Hockney, Garrowby Hill, 1998

List what you see: remember to look for color, light, line, and space as you always do.  This time, however, list every repetition you find of each element and describe how each varies.

Does this add up to a coherent visual idea?  If so, state it.

In the next post, I will discuss why I am asking you to do all this hard looking.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What to Look for in Art, Cont'd

So far, I have described the basic underpinnings of a process. Soon, this process will enable you to read the language of color.

Does that sound odd? 

Essentially, you are learning how to read color in the same way you learned to read letters, words, and sentences.

Learning to read the English language took some time, did it not?  This will also.

Before I explain the “why” of all this, why it matters to learn to read color, why you must understand the difference between the subject used and the picture created, and why artists adapt relevant visual ideas in order to make pictures, I will review.

This past year, I assisted colleagues in a class of 4th graders at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School in Philadelphia.  None of the children knew how to draw or paint, nor had they taken classes in art appreciation.  The school did not have an art teacher. 

During the initial classes dealing with use of the subject and the adaptation of tradition, we focused on portraiture. 

We showed the children these two paintings by Picasso:

Picasso, The Old Fisherman (Salmerón), Museu de Montserrat, Barcelona, 1895         


Picasso, Portrait of Madame H.P. (Hélène Parmelin), Collection Edouard Pignon, 1952

They quickly did the math:  Picasso painted the portrait of Hélène Parmelin 57 years after The Old Fisherman.  Born in 1881, they figured out Picasso was 14 years old when he painted The Old Fisherman.  Definitely impressed, they wondered why anyone who could paint like that (meaning skillfully—so it looked like the model) at 14 would not continue to do so.

That’s the lesson here, isn’t it? 

The children described the differences between the two pictures quite readily, and even though they liked the Fisherman more, they focused on Hélène.  In fact, one student described the depiction of her “hair” as “oodles of noodles.”  Another student renamed the picture “Spaghetti Hair.”  Notice, they went straight for the qualities expressed by the color units.  This enabled them to discover “clues” that assisted their visual discoveries.

I posed for them so they could use me as their subject, gave them paper and Cray-Pas, and they went to work.

Me posing
 Here are some portraits the students made:



The children learned from Picasso how to pattern, how to flatten, and how to select key color shapes to make their pictures.  They used certain details of my dress, my hair, and my visual quality in general as starting points.  Their pictures are a result of their experience of me (the subject) and Picasso (a way of seeing—a tradition).

The transformation of subject into color along with adaptation of tradition for visual ideas fuels picture making. 

I learned this years ago when my daughter, then 8 years old, worked in my studio along with several of her friends.  I showed them H.P. then as well, and they hated it.  They told me it was “ugly.”   I tried to argue that, in the picture, Hélène was not a woman, just a color shape.  “If she looked like this in real life,” I said, “you could call her ugly.”  But this is a picture; it is not her.  They were not convinced.

Months later, my daughter used two Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls as a subject.

Using watercolors, she painted this picture:

When I suggested to her that her picture was “informed” by what she had seen in Picasso’s, she claimed she never had seen a Picasso portrait.  I had to produce it again and show it to her. Then she argued hers was nothing like Picasso’s, that Picasso’s was ugly, and she hated it, and hers was just the way the dolls looked, just the way she saw them.

The compressed space, the repetition of patterns, the overlapping units of “hair,” the stark simplicity of the cubist arrangement, all of that, according to her, was just the way it looked.

Consider what she said.  She said she saw those dolls just the way they were, just the way they looked. 

I call this “informed perception.”  She learned to see through Picasso’s eyes, and that “seeing” transformed her subject into a picture idea.  No one else in that class “saw” those dolls the way she did, nor did I until she made her picture.  While she believed she was literally copying them, you can see how she made a color statement.  Her vision had been “educated” and she “saw” what she decided to see.

While this may sound mysterious and bizarre, it is neither.  Artists see this way every time they make a picture, and you need to learn to see this way to understand their work.

Consider another example concerning the use of subject.  When I told you before the subject did not determine what the picture is, this is also true in other art forms.

Here are two poems, both inspired by daffodils.

To Daffodils, Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with along.

We have short time to stay, as you;
We have a short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or, as the pearls of morning dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

 I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in a never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Both Herrick and Wordsworth used daffodils as a starting point, but each of them discovered in that subject very different meanings based on their individual backgrounds, interests, and skills.  

If we wanted to understand each poem, we would need to know how to read poetry: the language of poetry is word sounds.  We would listen to each poem as we read it and hear how it builds its form from rhythm, imagery, and ideas.  We would experience it.

When an artist subjects a subject to his interest, he makes visual discoveries he then shares by transforming them into a medium of expression. 

John Ciardi, in his book How Does a Poem Mean? says the question we need to answer is not “what does a picture mean?” but “how does a picture mean?”

In the next post, I will explain how the “how” informs the “why.”  I’ve said this process helps you understand the art in art.  I have not explained yet, although you may have sniffed it out by now, the role your senses play.